I was at a party last night where a person asked me what editing involved. When most people think of editing, they think of spelling and grammar. How could it possibly take three-quarters of a year to write a book and a year to edit it?
That’s a good question. For me, I wrote my first book without any knowledge of writing, other than what I learned in school. I’m university educated in business and computing, but not at all versed in the art of creative writing. And there’s a lot to learn.
It was a personal decision for me to see if I could write a story (novel length) without being encumbered with all of the rules of writing. I thought I might get discouraged. And, looking back, I definitely might have. The first priority for me was, do I have a story to tell?
While I wrote, I admit to researching how to create suspense. In the genre I was shooting for (fantasy thriller), it’s integral to the story. But that was all the writing advice I sought during the creation pass. After three quarters of a year, I had a rough story, hopefully suspenseful. Now, I had to learn about creative writing.
Below, I highlight my journey through five full edit passes — not including partial fix-ups and edits based on suggestions from others (friends, family and colleagues).
My intent in this article is not to teach. I am a new writer with lots to learn. However, by posting my journey of a years worth of editing, maybe I can help you ask the right questions, get you started.
If I have missed any major points, please feel free to contribute. Thanks.
FIVE EDIT PASSES – A YEAR IN THE MAKING
1st Edit Pass – BACKSTORY & CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
These are both very important and interrelated. Part of how you develop character is through backstory.
I read somewhere that most authors could chop the first 100 pages from their manuscript and their story would be better off. That made me take a hard look at the start of my story. Did it need to start there? Was I imparting unnecessary details? Was I front-loading all of the backstory, boring the heck out of my reader who just wants me to get on with it? Yes to all.
The secret is to sprinkle relevant bits of backstory and character development throughout the story. Not chunk it all at the beginning. Oh.
Consider the “fish-head” analogy. Like a fish monger, chop the fish head off (the first part of your manuscript) and throw it away. Only keep the “good eating” part.
Character Development is worth researching in its own right. How a person acts, how they wish they could have acted, what they say (out loud), what they meant (inner dialogue), how they speak or think (voice), body language, sarcasm, quirks, mannerisms, etc. etc. etc.
2nd Edit Pass – SCENE TRANSITION, POINT OF VIEW, SPELLING & GRAMMAR
A family member read an early draft and pointed out that my scene transitions were choppy and abrupt. So I looked into it. Apparently, there’s a right way to transition your scenes. Who knew?
Within the first paragraph or two of every scene, the reader should be re-oriented as to where they are, when, and in who’s point-of-view. Excellent segue into point of view.
What’s point-of-view? I wrote in third-person limited. Within each scene (or scene break), the reader should only be in one person’s head. Observations of other people’s actions and behaviors are possible only as much as can be observed or derived or assumed by the point-of-view character. If you relay inner-thoughts from more than one person in a scene, it’s called head-hopping and can pull your reader out of the story. Note: You can use scene breaks to switch to another point-of-view and that’s o.k.
Another keyword to look up is author-intrusion. Make sure you, as the author, aren’t explaining something that the reader needs to know, rather than showing it or explaining it from a character’s point of view (show don’t tell).
More on scene development: enter the scene at the last possible moment. What does that mean? That means you might be able to trim your scenes to eliminate the idle chit-chat at the beginning, where you’re losing too much pace, and get to the point quicker. It’s kind of like chopping the fish head off each individual scene.
3rd Edit Pass – READY FOR AN EDITOR?
At this point, I considered hiring an editor, but who? And how much was I willing to spend?
It turns out that who, was a lot harder a question than I had thought. Who indeed? So I did some research. What were the top-rated how-to books on self-editing? I bought Don McNair’s Editor-Proof Your Writing and read it. Yup. Edit pass number 3 coming up. Thanks Don, excellent book.
Tips such as dropping a shoe, so the reader is presented with unanswered questions that they must read on to find the answer. How to sprinkle-in back-story, making sure every scene has a purpose and advances the plot, etc. And more on POV – even descriptive narration within a scene should be reflective of the point-of-view character, not the author.
4th Edit Pass – STORY CLEANUP, Continuity, Add in Detail, Show don’t Tell, Spelling & Grammar
Write for clarity, reduce over-used words and phrases, use fewer -ing words, etc. see Don McNair’s 21 steps in the above mentioned book. Remove cliches unless they are used for a reason. Sometimes less is more. Try to vary your descriptors. I purchased The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi to help identify different adjectives to convey emotion. It helped.
Make sure to remove: author-intrusion, “aha” moments (Oh, now I see, everything is clear now), and Mary Sue characters (flawed is better than perfect).
5th Edit Pass – FLOW, FINE TUNING, SPELLING & GRAMMAR
For the fifth and final pass, I printed the story and read it on paper. I wanted the writing to disappear and the story to pop. If I stumbled on my own writing, a reader would too. Boy, did it need a cleanup pass.
Perhaps the process of editing introduced the choppiness. Or maybe, by fixing the bigger issues, the smaller problems became apparent. Either way, I found quite a bit to polish up. I’m also sure that if I were to read it again and again, I would probably make changes every time. When do you stop? That’s another good question.
Spelling and Grammar (yes, again): Pick a standard (I used an American dictionary, even though I’m Canadian). Also, get another pair of eyes to edit your manuscript. A spell-checker doesn’t find everything, like misused words.
A couple of other things to consider, not covered here, are:
- Structure and Plot
– Outlining vs. Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants)
Good luck with your writing projects!